I’m fascinated by history. All history. But my teenage kids don’t exactly share my passion. The history you learn at school is about dates and politics. It’s about reading dry old texts, mainly written by dry, long-winded old men.
If you really want to get your kids interested in history, you should take them to the places history happened. Places that have the ability to bring stories alive.
Like the Solomon Islands, where the stories of the WWII Pacific War are brought to life by the wreckage left behind, which is still sitting here in the jungles and under the sea. And where the locals, all of them, are great storytellers.
The Solomon Islands was the setting for the most prolonged military campaign in the Pacific theatre of World War II. The campaign ran for over six months, with heavy casualties on both sides, the Allies suffering over 7,000 deaths, the Japanese over 20,000, along with over 60 ships and 1,200 aircraft.
There are so many war ships at the bottom of the sea that separates the island of Guadalcanal from Savo and Florida Islands, its name was changed to Iron Bottom Sound. And on land, the jungles are still littered with the wrecks of aircraft, artillery and vehicles.
People travel from all over the world to dive the wrecks, now providing shelter to colourful reef fish, and to explore the many collections of WWII memorabilia. Here are a few of the stories we found on our recent visit.
1. Lumatapopoho Village. First of all, whenever visiting a new country with the kids, take an opportunity to introduce them to the local culture. The chief at Lumatapopoho has opened up his village to tourists to show people how life is lived here traditionally.
2. Kennedy Island. While the correct name for this island is Kasolo Island, everyone calls it Kennedy Island. During WWII, torpedo boat PT-109, captained by former U.S. President John F. Kennedy, was rammed and wrecked here by a Japanese Destroyer. Today it’s a pretty spot for a picnic, surrounded by a beautiful coral reef.
3. The Hellcat. This F6F Hellcat was named “Betsy” after the pilot’s wife. It was ditched in January 1943, after being shot by a Japanese fighter pilot, in very shallow water off the coast of Kolombangara Island in Gizo. It now lies in less than 9m of water and is covered in soft and hard corals.
4. The Toa Maru. This massive wreck of a Japanese freighter is over 140m long and lays just 100m off shore near Gizo Island. It’s one of the largest most impressive wreck in the Solomon Islands. Some of its cargo still remains, including sake bottles, vials of medicine and a jar of condoms!
5. Peter Joseph WWII Museum. The curator of this WWII museum, Barney Poulson, has been collecting memorabilia since 2002. The museum is named after his first find, dog tags belonging to one Corporal Peter Joseph. In fact there are piles of dog tags here, sitting among neatly ordered stacks of hand grenades, guns, bullets, Coke bottles and mess kits.
6. The Dauntless. The wreck of the Douglas SBD Dauntless, sits on a sandy bottom in the shallow waters of Rendova Lagoon near Munda. It’s covered with soft and hard corals and teeming with life. According to legend, the pilot, and the Japanese fighter who shot him down, reunited here for a dive and have remained in touch ever since.
7. Alfie’s Jeep. This Jeep was salvaged from the jungle by local character, Alfie Rex Lay, who has lovingly restored it to working order, using parts also salvaged from the jungle. If you’re lucky, Alfie will take you for a ride in it.
8. Tulagi’s Catalina. This American Catalina sank rather unceremoniously in 1943 after hitting a small boat on the surface and now sits in 35m of water near Tulagi Island. The wreck was only discovered three years ago by the NZ Navy so she’s more or less intact, unlike other wrecks that have been pillaged over the years since the war ended.
9. Skull Island. I heard a couple of different versions of the story behind Skull Island, but the general gist, is that tribal skulls were brought here after the missionaries arrived and converted this head-hunting nation to Christianity.
10. Bonegi 1. The Hirokawa Maru was one of 11 Japanese transports attacked on their way to Guadalcanal on the 14 November 1942, bombarded from land and sea. The 156m long wreck was originally stranded upright ashore, but over time, weathering various storms and the odd earthquake, the ship now lies with the remains of her bow in about 5 m and her stern in 60 m, covered in hard and soft corals and teeming with life and easily accessed from the nearby beach.
11. I-1 Japanese Submarine. Royal New Zealand Navy corvettes HMNZS Moa and Kiwi sank this submarine, which is almost 100m long, in January 1942. The Kiwis dropped depth charges, which brought the sub to the surface and a battle between the three ships then ensued during which time the Kiwi rammed the I-1 three times. The I-1 eventually ran aground on the reef near the village of Tambea where it remains today.
12. Vilu War Museum. A few kilometres west of Honiara this unassuming little outdoor museum has an impressive collection of wrecks and wartime memorabilia including American and Japanese planes and heavy artillery, neatly arranged in a beautifully landscaped garden.